Forty-nine years since making his first trip to Israel, US President Joe Biden is scheduled to arrive in the country on Wednesday on the first leg of his first presidential visit to the Middle East.
Biden first came to the country in 1973 as a newly minted senator from Delaware. He arrived after visiting Egypt some six weeks before the Yom Kippur War.
For years he has regaled Jewish and Israeli audiences with an account of a meeting he had during that trip with then-prime minister Golda Meir, who told him that Israel’s secret weapon in dealing with Arab hostility was, “We have no place else to go.”
He later termed the meeting one of the most “consequential” of his life.
At that meeting, however, he complained to Meir about the Labor Party’s platform which he said was leading to “creeping annexation” of the territories. He also relayed to Meir that in Egypt he heard how the Egyptian officials believed in “Israel military superiority.” He concluded, as a result, that Israel should initiate the first step toward peace by unilateral withdrawals from nonstrategic areas.
A half-century breeds enormous changes. The US has changed dramatically, as has its position in the Mideast. Israel, too, has changed dramatically, as has its position in the world. But two things from that meeting remain constant: Biden is still opposed to Israel’s policies in the territories, and Israel’s sense “that it has no place else to go” infuses much of its strategic thinking – including regarding Iran.
On Biden’s upcoming visit, both in Israel and in Saudi Arabia, the latter (Iran) issue is going to take up much more room than the first (the territories).
Another issue, which came to the fore only a few months after Biden’s initial visit, will also feature prominently: oil. His visit in the late summer of 1973 came just before the Arab countries discovered oil as a strategic weapon, and began to use it.
BIDEN WILL be the seventh sitting US president to visit Israel. It took 26 years before the first presidential visit to Israel, with Richard Nixon taking that leap in 1974. Since then, there have been 10 other presidential visits, including a one-day visit by Barack Obama in 2016 to attend Shimon Peres’s funeral. Nixon, Jimmy Carter and Donald Trump all visited once, George W. Bush and Obama visited twice, and Bill Clinton came here four times.
Not the US Gov's first Israeli election visit
This will not be the first time a US president comes during an election campaign. Clinton came here in March 1996 – after organizing a “Summit of Peacemakers’’ in Sharm e-Sheikh – and made clear his preference for Peres, rather than the Likud leader running against him at the time, Benjamin Netanyahu.
Clinton’s support didn’t help, as Netanyahu eked out a razor-thin victory over Peres in elections held two months later. This should be a cautionary tale for Prime Minister Yair Lapid, who is hoping that Biden’s visit will give him a boost.
Historically, nods from US presidents – though the optics are often powerful – have not necessarily translated into huge bonuses at the polls. Ask Peres. Heck, ask Netanyahu, and not because of the 1996 campaign. Ask Netanyahu how much he was helped by the hug then-president Donald Trump gave him before the two elections in 2019, and the one in 2020. Trump was all-in for Netanyahu, yet Netanyahu didn’t get the votes he needed to form a coalition.
What Biden’s visit will do for Lapid is make him look prime ministerial. Photos of Lapid meeting and greeting Biden, and even audio of Biden praising the new acting prime minister, may help remove lingering doubt among those who believe that the onetime television journalist is not yet ready for the political prime time.
It is not, however, going to move voters from the pro-Netanyahu camp to the anti-Netanyahu camp headed by Lapid.
What is the goal?
But beyond Lapid, what does Israel want from the Biden visit?
First of all, it just wants the visit itself. Presidential visits are still important for Israel because they reinforce the impression – an important one for Jerusalem in projecting power throughout the region and beyond – that its alliance with the US is steadfast and solid, and that it continues to enjoy a close and special relationship with Washington.
This not only deters those who might want to harm Israel, realizing that the US stands firmly behind it, but also encourages those who might want to get closer to Israel, because of Israel’s closeness to America. Presidential visits demonstrate that closeness.
Such a demonstration is especially important now, amid a constant drumbeat of stories about how Israel’s support in the US is on the decline, especially among Biden’s own Democratic Party, and especially among young voters in that party.
Secondly, Israel wants coordination on the Iranian dossier to come from this visit. It wants to coordinate with Biden regarding policy toward the Islamic Republic if there is no new nuclear agreement, and it wants to know what type of security architecture the US plans for the Mideast in that eventuality. Israel doesn’t only want to listen, it wants to give its input. Furthermore, Israel also wants to hear from Biden what the US plans to do if an agreement is signed, and Iran violates it.
BIDEN IS scheduled to arrive Wednesday afternoon and will be leaving for Saudi Arabia on Friday. He will also be spending a few hours in the Palestinian Authority with PA President Mahmoud Abbas.
There, too, there will be meetings with interlocutors who want something. The Palestinians will want to hear Biden talk about a two-state solution, and provide concrete steps toward working toward a “diplomatic horizon.” They will want commitments regarding opening a consulate in east Jerusalem, reopening the Palestinian Liberation Organization’s office in Washington, and pledges of more financial support for the PA.
They are likely to be disappointed, as – unlike other presidents on trips to Israel and the Mideast – the Palestinian issue, resolving this issue, is nowhere near the top of the president’s agenda for this trip.
When discussions about a possible presidential visit became public a few months ago, Naftali Bennett was prime minister – the government was shaky, but still held. Even though the government has since fallen, a new prime minister is in office, and elections are four months away, the Americans proved very determined to go ahead with the visit.
What is the incentive?
Why? Why visit Jerusalem at a time when the prime minister is not going to be able to make any significant promises, since in four months he may not be able to act on them. Why risk being seen as meddling in internal Israeli politics?
Why? Because Israel is only a sidelight on this visit. Had Biden been coming only to Israel, he probably would have canceled and come next year, after the US midterm elections and when a new government (hopefully) would be in place in Jerusalem. But Israel is just the appetizer on this presidential voyage. Saudi Arabia is the main course.
Ironically, Biden is actually using the appetizer to explain to critics why he is moving on to the main course. He is using Israel to deflect criticism at home about visiting Saudi Arabia, despite that country’s human rights violations, despite its involvement in the killing of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, and despite Biden’s having said in the 2020 presidential campaign that it is a country that should be treated like a “pariah.”
One of the main purposes of this visit to the region, Biden said at a press conference in Spain last month, is to “deepen Israel’s integration in the region.”
“I think we’re going to be able to do [that], which is good – good for peace and good for Israeli security,” he said. “That’s why Israeli leaders have come out so strongly for my going to Saudi [Arabia].”
In other words, why is Biden going to Saudi Arabia, where he will join a meeting of the Gulf Cooperation Council plus Iraq, Egypt and Jordan, and is expected to see Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, whom he has pointedly snubbed since becoming president? Because Israel wanted him to, because it’s good for Israel.
In Saudi Arabia, both Biden and the Saudis have their wants.
Biden wants, in fact he desperately needs, the Saudis to increase oil production to make up for shortfalls in supply caused by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. This has led to skyrocketing prices in the US, with the average cost per gallon now standing at $4.79 a gallon (still well below the $8.96 Israelis pay per gallon at the pump).
The president is making his Mideast trip as the US economy is in the doldrums, sending his popularity numbers to new lows. Biden’s approval rating (39% on June 30) was almost 3 points lower than Trump’s at the same stage of his presidency. And that low popularity isn’t because he has not put enough energy into the Mideast peace process, but, rather, primarily because of the economy – inflation and gas prices.
He hopes that in Saudi Arabia he can find a cure, at least, for gas prices.
But this may be too high of an ask.
The Saudis, smarting from what they feel is the shabby way they were treated by Biden and this administration, are in no great rush to come to the president’s aid. Lowering gas prices will help the Democrats – poised to get clobbered in five months in the US midterm election. But the Saudis aren’t interested in the Democrats doing well at the polls. If anything, they would prefer a Republican Congress and – in another two years – a Republican president.
THE SAUDIS also have their wants. They want the US to acknowledge that Riyadh has been a loyal strategic partner for 80 years; they want the US to acknowledge that the country has suffered from Houthi attacks; they want the Houthis reinstated on the American list of terrorist organizations; they want respect from Washington, and not to be viewed merely as America’s gas station.
In addition, they want assurances from Biden that they can count on the US in the future. The Saudis are looking for assurances that the US is not withdrawing from the region and is still willing to use its vast military power, and they want to hear how the US plans to protect them from Iran.
Biden will be flying into a region this week where a lot of different parties have a lot of different asks and expectations. Inevitably, some people are going to be disappointed.
Biden himself may be among them.